No lurch to the left

The Tories would be unwise to believe their own spin about Jon Cruddas's appointment to head Labour'

It was hardly a shuffle, more like a shimmy. Ed Miliband has made some changes to his top team in response to the departure of Peter Hain from the office of shadow Secretary of State for Wales. His replacement is Owen Smith, a generally well-rated MP from the 2010 intake who seems to have made a wide range of friends and few enemies in his short time in parliament.

But the move that has generated the most attention is the handing of responsibility for the party’s policy review to Jon Cruddas. The Dagenham MP has a high profile in the party and has been pestered by various people to take a front line ever since his unsuccessful but much admired (in Labour circles; unnoticed anywhere else) campaign for the deputy leadership in 2007.

The appointment has been vacuously branded by Conservatives a “lurch to the left”. This is presumably a half-hearted attempt to re-animate the spectre of “Red Ed” as a kind of default jibe in the absence of more imaginative ways to insult the Labour leader. Anyone who knows Cruddas, has followed his career or listened to his arguments will know he is plainly not a reactionary big state union-hugging lefty from central casting. He was an advisor to Tony Blair and a supporter of David Miliband’s leadership bid in 2010. He was a critic of big state models of welfare spending as ineffective in dealing with stubborn social problems back in the days when budget constraints were not even part of the discussion.

He has dedicated considerable thought to an acute dilemma in modern British politics: how to address the insecurity, disorientation and disempowerment that many feel in response to globalised economic forces without indulging in illiberal strains of protectionism and atavistic nationalism. One criticism sometimes heard of Cruddas is that he is long on elegant analysis of a problem, short on solution.

By contrast, that allegation is never made against Lord Andrew Adonis, Gordon Brown’s transport secretary and architect of the Academy Schools programme under Tony Blair. He has been recruited to feed thoughts on industrial strategy into the policy review. That is being interpreted in some quarters as a symbolic hire to indicate that Blairish ideas are tolerated in Miliband’s Labour party. There was certainly appetite for such a gesture since Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary who has been kicked off the policy review, is considered a fanatical Blairite by the kind of people who still care about such labels. (That is, most of the media and a large but diminishing section of the parliamentary Labour party.)

If Adonis is going to be empowered to take serious decisions about the direction of Labour policy on reforming the economy, infrastructure and strategic investment, he and Cruddas will make a formidable pairing. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the Tories seriously believe their own spin about a sudden surge of Trotskyism at the Labour top table. Surely they are not so crude in their analysis or so ignorant of Labour thinking. Miliband must be hoping they are and that his enemies, not for the first time, are busy underestimating him.

Update: In Prime Minister's Questions today David Cameron used the appointment of Jon Cruddas as a device to attack Ed Miliband for apparent cosiness with trade unions and for revealing his supposedly sinister leftist impulses. It was a desperate lunge suggesting that the Tories do indeed know nothing about Cruddas other than what they must have hastily found on Wikipedia this morning. If they want a more nuanced view they should start with Gaby Hinsliff's profile for the Guardian here and, of course, some of the pieces he has written for the Statesman here.


Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.